By Ryan Loughrey
Burstarse Falls has been on my radar for a long time, but I have never had the chance to try to find them. The trail to the vista point has been colloquially described as “you have to burstarse to get there,” so naturally I was enticed.
I’ve heard dramatic descriptions – that Upper Burstarse Falls was akin to the waterfalls of Yosemite, and the hike offered dramatic views of Castle Crags along the PCT. I knew I was going in somewhat of the off season, so had not expected to find a lot of water.
I packed my new backpack as if I was going to do an overnight trip – tent, sleeping bag, cooking utensils, light clothes, water and water purifier, camera, book and notebook, and light food. From Redding, the drive to the trailhead takes around 50 minutes via I-5. Driving past the entrance to Castle Crags for about 3.3 miles, I was able to find the large parking area to the right that looked like a miniature quarry (and someone’s dumping grounds for small furniture). On the right half of the area is a popular shooting area, and someone had even left a cardboard cutout of Jack Black. My friend summed up my reaction perfectly when she commented on my photo: “I’m very confused about this and slightly terrified.” I did experience the odd sensation of being watched while I was getting ready to hike.
On the west side of the parking area is the trailhead for Dog Trail. As dogs are not allowed on the trails in Castle Crags State Park, hikers with four-legged companions on the PCT can use this to circumnavigate the park. Although overall, the hike to Burstarse Falls is not exceptionally difficult, the first half mile seem to be the most challenging. Through a small series of switchbacks, Dog Trail climbs nearly 600 feet in a half mile span to connect to the Pacific Crest Trail. There were definitely a few moments I had to stop to adjust my backpack and catch my breath.
Once on the Pacific Crest Trail, the hike is pretty level and easy. I was hiking along the mountains with only the sound of the wind in the valley below. The trail zig zags through the forest, and it felt like I was truly alone out here. There was a few small pieces of bear scat, but it looked older and I knew that if I did find any bears, we would mutually want nothing to do with each other.
For my guide, I referenced the website “hikemtshasta.com,” and one of my favorite descriptors is “After repeatedly scalloping through a seemingly endless series of drainages, the PCT finally arrives at Burstarse Creek.” I found this to be true. Most of the drainages were dry, although Popcorn Spring, roughly halfway from the Dog Trail cutoff to Burstarse Creek did have water.
Just before arriving at Burstarse Creek, I spied the only other humans I would encounter on the trail that day. They were a young couple, who told me I was close, but described the falls as little more than a trickle (although they could have said “tinkle” and I misheard). After a few more minutes of hiking, I arrived at the creek, identified by a sign that seemed to be hidden in the tree growing around it.
From here, the hike to the Lower Falls is pretty easy, just following the trail up the creek a small ways. All along the creek, mossy stones and fallen leaves gave the area an ancient look. I arrived at Lower Burstarse Falls, with a small pool maybe three and half feet deep at its base.
The hike here took me around an hour and twenty minutes. From what I’ve heard, it is not uncommon for people to stop here, thinking this is the only falls. However, Upper Burstarse Falls is a bit more of a hike up the creek. I did, however, leave my ungainly backpacking pack at a space here, knowing that it was unlikely any other hikers would be here, let alone steal anything. The trail to Upper Falls was, in a word, nonexistent. I spotted parts of it on the eastern side of the creek, but my advice would be go up the creek in the safest way you can. Also, keep an eye out for poison oak around here. I crawled and hopped up the creek, finding beautiful rocks that seemed to have been scraped by cascading stones.
I did find the viewpoint for Upper Falls, after passing through a small canyon that seemed like it would be a great place to try to rock climb one day. The upper falls were, indeed, little more than a trickle, and in my photos I am not sure if the water is even visible. Still, you can trace the path of the falls given the stains on the rock that have undergone prolonged exposure.
I took a lunch break up here, sitting on the rocks next to the small cascades of water. The air was cool but not cold, and I realized I could have probably worn shorts and been adequately dressed, a weird realization given that it was the end of December. There was not another soul around, which made me step with a little extra caution. Overall though, I found the feeling of peace that can be found in the wilderness. The solitude that is neither overwhelming nor unwelcome, but a genuine and simplistic joy.
The hike back seemed so short and easy. As I approached the trailhead, I could hear the sound of gunshots and knew people were utilizing the range by where I’d parked. I almost felt sleepy, which was a nice contrast from the hike up, where I felt the leg workout I’d done the day before. Although on the hike up I could see the Crags through the trees, I came to an opening that was only visible heading east on the trail.
Although I appreciated the hike and the escape (and yes, the testing of the new backpack which ended up fitting great after a few minor adjustments in the beginning), I would love to come back to find the roaring falls that would look just as natural in Yosemite as the Castle Crags Wilderness. I will definitely be returning to this area.
From I-5, take the Castella Exit (Exit 724) and head west on Castle Creek Road. Stay on this for approximately 3.3 miles, and there is a small PCT sign and parking area on the right-hand side of the road. The trailhead is on the west side of this area.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine